Axis Mundi

We spend a lot of time obsessively tailoring our personal universes. At least I do. And while this feathering makes good sense and keeps the brain on an even keel, I am always a bit jarred by the alchemic effect that comes with a change of station. New surroundings always foster a sort of visceral response, which means that probably take each locale a bit more personally than is reasonable. But the reality is that I am always changing, just as each place never stands in a vacuum. And every aspect of planetary life unfolds at a different clip. For better or for worse, we’re all part of the world’s worst science experiment with no reliable controls to be found. 

Where I sit right now is reported to be one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, and in witnessing its 24-hour day, I absolutely believe this to be true. Naples is the kind of spot that my father would call a four-alarm nuthouse: the cubic centimeters that comprise man and machine make you wonder how its terrestrial skeleton manages to accommodate the disproportionate demand on capacity. It isinsane. And from afar, knowing my own sensibilities, I imagine that I could never exist here on a long-term basis. But then I took a trip and dipped a foot in. To my surprise, I discovered a great many things that made me think otherwise—and the first had to do with a twice-daily phenomenon that helps to bring me back. 

It’s not the only place where I’ve experienced it, but I vividly recall the moment when I first fell in love with the minor hours here on Italy’s shinbone. The connection made sense. As a rule I’ve always felt most at ease in the margins of life’s main events and in Naples, the sunrise and set offered a sort of bookend reprieve from the otherwise mentally-taxing navigation through the Vespa racetracks. I’ll leave the depiction of color and light to the Italian masters—instead I will simply say that for a few moments each day, I was part of an existence that felt purpose-built for me. 

I remember the first time that I visited California. It was a 1998 road trip with my sister, and as unsalaried daughters of an airline pilot, we grabbed standby flights west with a vague plan to drive north through the state. I landed in LAX with my eyes on the widest aperture as the Northwest Airlines plane taxied past a post-modern flying saucer. From there I climbed into an off-brand shuttle van where I asked the man to drop me off “near a monument” in West Hollywood. I felt like I was joining Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. For a few days the two of us took in the plastic fantastic of the city until we grew restless, then we made our move to leave town. 

My sister was the one who was old enough to procure a rental car, but somewhere between her signing the contract and us walking to the car lot, it was still decided that I’d do the first leg of driving. She handed me the keys to what would become the finest car ever built for navigating the Pacific Coast Highway: a white Geo Metro with no power anything. 

“Oh wow,this is so beautiful…But don’t look down!” This was my sibling’s running commentary as we twisted north along the edge of the continent. My upper arms—back then consisting more of baby fat than bicep muscles—were unevenly matched against the asphalt below us as I muscled the car along at unhelpfully slow speeds. When I did glance out over the Pacific, I immediately forgave the Geo for its lack of power steering. The sun was hanging low on the Pacific, and the prism of light made your eyes feel predisposed to draw west off the road and get a better look. We drove until reaching a spot somewhere south of San Francisco. That evening we found availability in a Youth Hostel that handed us keys to a room that was actually a lighthouse. That night we fell asleep and woke up to the ocean. Then we got back into that damn car. For these reasons and for many others, this trip remains one of the most vivid and treasured journeys of my life.

After exploring the Golden State for over a week, one evening the two of us sat in a restaurant by the water, enjoying the close of another day. Ever pensive but now breaking her taciturn nature, my big sister suddenly spoke while focusing on the horizon: “I’m really happy out here,” she said, sounding almost surprised in speaking, “I don’t want to forget how this feels.” 

I nodded and understood what she meant. That feeling of urgency. At that point we were newly-emerging slaves to the realities of a just expired childhood. The future demanded knowing not only what we wantedout of life, but also what we could reasonably getout of the great, big, possible world. Once we grew older, of course we saw that people often don’t occupy spaces that wholly agree with their particular constitution. But when they do, it is incredibly easy to put a finger on that sense of equanimity. 

But life is dynamic. You must continue performing hard and inelegant maneuvers in order to keep on breathing. Working. Living.  Life’s great challenge is to successfully capture your sunrise moment and place into a mat border that is both palatable and cut with relatively neat edges. Having some experience with operating a mat cutter while trying to frame my favorite black and white photographs, I can tell you that this is no small feat. Mat cutters are tools of the devil. It’s not easy to mount and frame a life without scrutinizing the finished product a bit—but there is also beauty in the imperfection.

It’s always a little sad when you sense that the distance between you and something special has closed and is now opening. Moving forward can be hard. It goes back to my acknowledgement that I tend to take most places more personally than I should. And it’s easy to fantasize that a physical departure means that something is lost forever—especially when you are younger and short on experiences. But for all of the places where I I’ve found something special, I really do feel as though they are never too far from any of it. Like tattoos, the images are pricked into your brain—and more often than not, you’re bound to regain that sense of belonging in places you might not expect. It might come while in a Geo Metro, or it might come while dodging a Vespa. Or more than likely it will be something that you haven’t even conceived of yet. After everything I’ve seen so far, I have faith in this ridiculous life experiment and the beauty of moving forward.